The earth moved: Link between fracking and earthquakes is established


Over recent months, we’ve talked on this blog about numerous reasons for taking a much more cautious approach on the natural gas drilling process known as fracking. There is a growing body of evidence that fracking has been linked to contamination of drinking water wells — so much so that in some cases methane gas has created smelly tap water that can be set on fire with a match. Air pollution has increased in the areas around drilling rigs. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of tainted and possibly radioactive wastewater have been dumped in rivers and streams. All of this has occurred because of a shoot-first, ask-questions later mentality when it comes to fracking.

One of the most alarming indictments has been the possibility that fracking causes earthquakes. Around the country, from Ohio to Arkansas, geologists have recorded increased seismic activity in areas of major fracking activity. Many of these areas had not been prone to earthquakes before the gas companies showed up with their rigs. So seems logical that fracking — in which liquids are injected at high pressure to break apart rock deep under the earth — would be to blame, yet some government geologists have seemed eager to turn a blind eye to the problem.

Now, however, comes some fairly conclusive evidence that injecting liquids underground is indeed causing the earth to move:

Scientists have linked Oklahoma’s biggest recorded earthquake to the disposal of wastewater from oil production, adding to evidence that may lead to greater regulation of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas.

The 5.7-magnitude quake in 2011 followed an 11-fold bump in seismic activity across the central U.S. in recent years as disposal wells are created to handle increases in wastewater from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Researchers at the University of Oklahoma, Columbia University and the U.S. Geological Survey, who published their findings yesterday in the journal Geology, said the results point to the long-term risks the thousands of wells pose and shows a need for better monitoring and government oversight.

“There’s not a magic bullet,” Heather Savage, assistant research director at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, said in an interview. “But if we have more monitoring capabilities, we can watch these things, and catch all the precursor events.”

The earthquake near Prague, Oklahoma, on Nov. 6, 2011, was the state’s biggest and may be the largest linked to the injection of water from drilling process, the researchers reported. The state’s geological office disagreed, and said it was likely “the result of natural causes.” The temblor destroyed 14 homes, damaged other buildings, injured two people and buckled pavement, according to the report.

It’s important to note that this wastewater was produced by conventional drilling and not from fracking, but the critical issues surrounding deepwater injection are exactly the same. Scientists reported that it took some time in Oklahoma for the pressure from the wastewater to build underground; given that fracking is a fairly recent phenomenon, that bodes very poorly for the future of unconventional drilling. All this comes as key officials both in states such as New York and with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency weigh tougher regulations on natural gas drilling, and possibly a moratorium in the case of New York. With this new report about the increased risk of earthquakes, the case against fracking has just grown a lot stronger.

To learn more about the causes of the 2011 earthquake in Oklahoma, please read:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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